Chang-rae Lee

A Gesture Life

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A Gesture Life Summary

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Korean-American author Chang-Rae Lee’s second novel, A Gesture Life, was inspired when Lee was deeply disturbed by a news story about Korean “comfort women” – sex slaves used by Japanese soldiers in WWII. Published in 1999, A Gesture Life is narrated by a man who worked as a medic overseeing the comfort women of a camp in Burma. During the course of the novel, he slowly comes to realize that his careful veneer of good citizenship is a mask developed to hide his role in the women’s torment and to keep himself at arm’s length from those around him.

The book is told in the first person, and, since it reflects the memories and thoughts of the main character, it does not follow a set chronology. Also, a brief warning that the plot details sex slavery and rape.

Seventy-year-old Franklin Hata is now retired. He lives in an upscale house in the wealthy town of Bedley Run, and does everything in his power to blend into this community and to make everyone there comfortable in his presence. Because he used to own a pharmacy called Sunny Medical Supply, he has come to be known as Doc Hata. He spends his days maintaining routine and ritual, in the firm belief that this way of going through life will enable him to overcome any obstacles. Although he has now sold the pharmacy to a young couple, he has trouble letting go of his past. Part of his routine involves walking by the pharmacy daily to check on how it’s doing.

We learn that he has an estranged adopted daughter, Sunny and that at some point he had a romance with a white neighbor who has since passed away. The breakdown of his relationship with Sunny, who left home to live on her own as a teenager, is the driving disappointment of Hata’s life. When he first adopted Sunny, he bribed an official to make sure that the child he would receive was a girl. But he and Sunny could never really connect. She hated the house, the routines, and the two were locked in endless conflict over her behavior and his expectations. We learn that their relationship completely fell apart after a particularly terrible argument.

When he is accidentally injured in a small fire in his house, Hata ends up in the hospital. There, forced to refrain from the carefully constructed pattern of his days, he begins to remember and rethink his life. In a series of flashbacks, we learn why he has become the restrained, self-monitoring person that he is today, and why he could never open himself to Sunny fully – why he was always leading “a gesture life” rather than a real one.

Hata, an ethnic Korean who was adopted by a Japanese family and was thus forced to assimilate to a new culture as a small child (before doing it again as an adult in the U.S.), tells us that he was never sufficiently respectful to his adopted parents. At the beginning of WWII, Hata is drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army and trained as a medic. Deployed to a remote outpost in Burma, Hata finds himself responsible for treating the newly-arrived comfort women – kidnapped Korean women brought to the camp to be the soldiers’ sex slaves. One of the women is quickly mercy-killed by a soldier who is later executed for sparing her from being endlessly raped in captivity.

Another of the women, Kkutaeh, whom Hata calls K, comes from a high-status Korean family that refused its daughters any freedom. K’s intellect and beauty appeal to the ranking officer at the camp, Lieutenant Ono, who conspires with Hata to keep K from the other soldiers. Ono has access to her at night, and during the day she stays with Hata in the medical tent. Hata falls in love with her and imagines that she returns his feelings – but she does not, and assumes that his attention is primarily sexual desire. She is proven right when Hata rapes her in her sleep, although he does not acknowledge to himself that what he does is rape. K begs Hata to kill her – if he really loved her, he wouldn’t want her to live like this. When Hata refuses, K stabs Ono in the throat. Hata shoots the wound to try to make it look like an accident, but K is blamed for the death anyway. It is strongly implied that the camp’s thirty soldiers rape her to death.

Hata thinks about Mary, a widow with whom he had a pleasant and intimate relationship. Mary was at first impressed by his house and tried her best to grow close to Sunny, but Sunny refused to warm up to her. After some arguments about the way Hata was failing as a parent, he and Mary broke up. Later, Mary passed away.

Remembering the last few years with Sunny, Hata thinks about his reaction to her constantly running away to spend her nights with low-life hoodlums on the wrong side of town. After one of these men rapes her, Sunny returns home to try to fix her relationship with her father. But because she is pregnant, Hata forces her to get an abortion – after which, Sunny leaves home for good.

After leaving the hospital, Hata resolves to try to find Sunny. She is now thirty-two, working in a mall store and has a six-year-old son. Hata makes small inroads to try to reconnect with her and his grandson. The novel ends when Sunny has made peace with the fact that her father and son are growing closer, but she still doesn’t want her son to know that Hata is her grandfather.

The novel was praised for its nuanced look at the psychological implications of assimilation – both cultural and situational. While Hata’s extreme blending in works to create a sort of “ideal citizen” role for him in Bedley Run, it is also the thing that prevents him from helping K or from truly connecting with Sunny. The novel won the Asian-American Literary Award, with critics citing its concerns with “both cultural/racial exile and universal experiences of emotional exile…[the way] pressure to conform may ultimately be dehumanizing…[and] how parent-child relationships are inevitably affected by past trauma.”